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Therapy Dogs Benefit Those With ADHD

Dogs open the possibility of new treatment options for those suffering from ADHD.

by Karen B. London, PhD
August 4, 2018
Two Black women with curly hair laying on the grass with their senior dog laying between them
Lupe Rodríguez / Stocksy

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Concerned about the lack of treatment for those suffering from Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), researchers studied the positive effects of therapy dogs on children with ADHD. Though therapy dogs have been used to help kids with ADHD for a long time, this study is the first randomized experiment to document the effects people have been anecdotally reporting for years. Here’s what researchers learned about how therapy dogs effectively reduce symptoms of this disorder in children.

How do therapy dogs help children with ADHD?

Catecholamines are important in stress responses. Children with ADHD may suffer from abnormal physiological factors in the catecholamine system, especially dopamine receptors and transporters, and the genes that are necessary to convert it to norepinephrine. The result of these abnormalities is decreased motivation and reduced emotions, which can lead to inattention and disinterest in social interactions as well as in the learning process.

If this “Motivational Hypothesis” is true, then interacting with dogs may help these kids by heightening their arousal and emotional states and leading to increased attention and interest in the environment in which therapy takes place. It’s also possible that the opportunity to interact with a therapy dog motivates children to comply with the requirements of therapy and to engage with the therapist.

Dogs increase the odds of improvement.

The kids in the study were all 7-9 years old and none of them had ever taken medication for ADHD. All of the kids were treated according to long-established best practices in the field of psychosocial intervention. Half the kids were randomly assigned to a group that also received Canine Assisted Intervention (CAI) — treated with a therapy dog. They were able to interact twice weekly with therapy dogs, reading to them and teaching them new behaviors. The kids who did not work with a therapy dog read to realistic dog puppets and taught other children specific skills.

Children in both groups showed improvement in their ADHD symptoms, but standard psychosocial intervention combined with therapy dog work was more effective than psychosocial intervention alone. Specifically, the kids who interacted with therapy dogs had greater improvement in social skills and attention than kids whose treatment did not include dogs. They also had fewer behavior problems than the kids receiving standard treatment without dogs, and they showed positive improvements earlier in the study than the group of kids who did not interact with dogs. There were no differences found between the groups in terms of their hyperactivity and impulsivity.

The future of ADHD treatment options.

There is a big push to develop and study new therapies to treat ADHD that do not involve medication. Many parents are hesitant to use medication with their children and typically only use it for 1-3 years. There is a strong possibility that many parents will be more open to therapy dog work than to using a medication, so treatments with dogs could result in higher long-term compliance.

This study showed that therapy with dogs improved some symptoms of ADHD but not others, so it is likely that multiple treatment types are needed to target the full range of symptoms. There is still much to be learned about the best way to incorporate therapy dogs into the treatment of kids with ADHD.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.